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'Angel' touches on life, death

February 18, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

SHIPPENSBURG, PA. - Having a conversation with Della Reese is like sitting around a living room with a favorite aunt. She scolds, cajoles, encourages, praises and gives lots of hugs. "She speaks at our level in language we can understand," said Jackie Miller, a senior at Shippensburg University, where Reese spoke Thursday to a group of about 25 students. Reese was a guest at the Gifted Minority Scholarship benefit dinner and spoke at Heiges Field House as part of the school's commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

"She's definitely great," Miller said.

Reese, 73, a pop and gospel singer, actress and ordained minister, is probably best known for her costarring role on the television show, "Touched by an Angel," now in syndication. Older folks will remember some of her early Top 40 hits including, "Don't You Know."

"I loved her," said freshman Audrey Weeks as she left the room where Reese met with the students. "She spoke of her spiritual platform and how it helped her get on with her life. She definitely had a difficult time growing up."

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The students seemed reluctant to leave the room.

"God Bless, God Bless, come on," Reese said. "I've got hugs for everybody, even the press."

Reese, speaking at a press conference later, said she grew up in the slums of Detroit. She started singing in church at age 6.

Her musical break came when the famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson came to her church for a performance. The lyric soprano in Jackson's group was pregnant. Jackson was headed for a tour through the South and the soprano's husband didn't think that being black, his wife would get proper medical care.

"Conditions in the south were not good in those years," Reese said.

Jackson asked Reese to take her place on the tour.

"That was in 1973. I was 13," she said.

She remembers getting her start as a professional singer. She was singing gospel in Detroit-area churches and knew if she was going to get ahead she would have to do it on her own.

She learned of a promotional campaign sponsored by Stroh's beer and a Detroit newspaper to sell beer and newspapers.

Participants were asked to list their favorite singers on coupons. Reese said she clipped them out and got people to sign them in her favor.

"I ended up with three bushels of coupons," she said.

She started to sing in nightclubs and met an agent named Lee Magid. He ended up staying with her for 25 years, she said.

Reese formed a group called the Meditation Singers and became the first performer to take gospel music to Las Vegas.

She was nominated for a Grammy award as Best Female Soloist in Gospel in 1987. She was a regular guest on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

She lives in Los Angeles with her third husband, producer Franklin Lett.

Today, Reese spends her time speaking at colleges or wherever young people are, she said.

"I want to help them to know about their spiritual selves, to know what's inside them, that they can be what they want to be," she said.

Reese said she has earned the right to talk to young people, "because I pulled myself up from the slums. I had to learn about the me inside."

She said her mother put her on the spiritual platform that has taken her through life.

Asked about her memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Reese said she always was impressed with him.

Before King, blacks didn't do things together. Now, because of him "we're together on the same page," she said.

Diagnosed with diabetes, Reese is on a personal crusade to help others with the disease. She urges sufferers to follow her lead in lowering their blood sugar every day.

"I brought mine down from 500 to 87," she said.

Reese also is involved in a movement called "Faith in Action," in which volunteers help older people to remain independent.

"When I go to the spirit world, I want to go from my own bed, not from somebody else's," she said.

Reese said she loves singing.

"I like the way it makes me feel," she said.

Of acting, she said, "I can be somebody else."

She's in the ministry, she said, "so I can help people find themselves."

Still active in all three pursuits, Reese said, "it's fun jumping from one thing to another."

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